The Best Show of the Year Is Mad Men

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Photo: Maya Robinson and Photos by AMC, FX, Amazon and Comedy Central
Announcing...The Best Show
Photo-illustrations by Maya Robinson

All this week, we’re presenting the Vulture TV Awards, honoring the best in television from the past year.

The nominees are:

The Americans
Transparent
Mad Men
Justified
Inside Amy Schumer


And the Best Show is ...

Mad Men

Mad Men, which wrapped up its seventh and final season this year, is the most richly textured, intricately structured drama I’ve seen in the nearly 20 years I’ve been a TV critic. Even when I didn't especially like it, I admired it. It managed to be as original and consistently entertaining as The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, and Breaking Bad were, even though it had no genre hook and very little in the way of violence or criminal intrigue.

Other shows are more perfect from moment to moment — more carefully calibrated, smoother; one is The Americans, which is why it is Vulture's choice for Best Drama, a distinction I explained in that entry — but none is as rich or as unabashedly big, as much of a Show. It's a plausible candidate for Best Drama of the Year, for sure, but as Best Show — a category that transcends craft and implies a connection to the Zeitgeist — no other series came close. Some were more consistent, others more popular, but none were as consistently compelling, infuriating, goofy, mysterious, and poignant.

All of the episodes, even the ones I don’t especially like, are inexhaustibly detailed: packed with comic and dramatic moments; period-accurate clothing and hairstyles and music; imaginative, hilarious, and often deeply moving performances; and screenwriting that depicts the complexities and contradictions of the human personality with more insight and empathy than any American series in recent memory. It’s a historical drama about how individuals are and are not affected by the local, national, and international history that’s constantly unfolding around them. It’s a psychodrama about how our personalities are shaped by our parents, our lovers, our friends, our bosses, and everyone else we know, as well as by people we’ve never met but feel as though we know: the politicians, civil-rights leaders, athletes, movie stars, musicians, and other icons who inspire, entertain, confound, and sometimes anger us as we muddle through our daily lives. It’s also a series with an unusually strong affinity for mythology, spirituality, religion, psychoanalysis, pop psychology, literature, poetry, cinema, and all the other means by which human experience is transformed into narrative. And at every level — the scene, the episode, the season, and in total — it is a masterpiece of construction, filled with major and minor bits of foreshadowing and recollection, lines and images that seem to answer each other across time.

And even as it manages to do and be all of these things, and many others, it entertains. Really, truly entertains. It’s exciting. Sexy. Sometimes unbearably sad. But above all else, it’s funny, maybe for survival’s sake: A show that inflicts so much darkness on its characters is obligated to offer a bit of light as compensation, otherwise we wouldn’t go near it. That, I suspect, is why we were graced with the sight of Donald Draper doing a “devil” voice; Ken Cosgrove tap-dancing; Roger Sterling declaring, “All I took from that was that Hitler didn’t smoke, and I do”; Betty Draper saying, “My people were Nordic”; Harry Crane getting caught in the office in his underwear, with a smoldering trashcan in his arms; Lane Pryce bellowing, “Because he was caught with chewing gum on his pubis!”; Peggy Olson announcing, “My name is Peggy Olson, and I want to smoke some marijuana”; and Pete Campbell staring bleakly into the middle-distance and saying, “Boys’ Life. Next to exploding cigars.”

You might have noticed that I've been using present tense. That's because Mad Men doesn't feel "over" to me any more than Billy Wilder's The Apartment, John Cheever's short fiction, or John Dos Passos's U.S.A trilogy — to name just three admitted influences on Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner's imagination — feel "over." The show isn't making more episodes but it still exists, and I think it will be revisited and enjoyed again, just as we revisit and enjoy our favorite novels, films, and albums. I think it's that sturdy and that good.

The back half of season seven confirmed it for me. A lot of people complained about the introduction of new characters. Some seized the spotlight in the run-up to the final credits, like Leonard, the character in that group-therapy scene in the series finale. Others turned out to be nearly figurative constructs reflecting the interior states of other characters, such as the waitress, Diana. But this, too, was in keeping with Mad Men tradition. The show often brought in characters who momentarily wrested the narrative away from Don and Peggy and Company: Some were powerful and intimidating, like Conrad Hilton; others charmingly "average," like Dennis Hobart, the prison guard Don bonds with in the hospital waiting room in season three’s “The Fog”; and still others puzzling, like the woman Don talks to on the plane in the season-seven part-one premiere, who seemed as much a near-dreamlike figure as Diana. I recently rewatched the entire series and was stunned by the show's dramatic architecture — the way it rhymes certain situations and decisions (like the arcs of Roger and Don's married lives) as well as key scenes (such as the finale's callback to a key scene in season two, which I wrote about here). The show's pop-culture acuity continued as well: the shot of Don racing across the desert at the start of the finale connected, subtly, with the monolith/Dave Bowman/2001 imagery in the first half of season seven, and the snippet of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" at the end of "Lost Horizon" tied it all together, along with Bert Cooper's death and the moon landing in "Waterloo." A chameleon, Bowie is providing escape music for another chameleon, Don, on a series that's about reinvention, change, and evolution, and has consistently been obsessed with travel, rockets, space, and science fiction.

Again: What a brilliant show. The only reason I won't miss it is because Mad Men produced seven seasons' worth of episodes, all so densely packed with drama, comedy, and sheer imagination that I wouldn't delude myself into thinking I've really seen them all.